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Speech
Secretary of Defense Speech

Secretary of Defense Speech at RAND (As Delivered)

Sept. 16, 2020
Secretary of Defense Dr. Mark T. Esper

Well thank you for that introduction -- kind introduction Michael and good morning everyone. It’s great to be here and I also want to thank Dr. Edward Harshberger for moderating today’s discussion. And I really look forward to a good conversation with all of you.

It is great to be here at the RAND Corporation, with many of the thought leaders who have made significant contributions to national security policy for more than seventy years, as Mike mentioned.

RAND has played a vital role in connecting military planning with research and development decisions since its founding in the wake of World War II.

You know, just two weeks ago, I stood on the deck of the USS Missouri, in Pearl Harbor, to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the end of that conflict. In the aftermath of that great struggle, the United States, our allies, our partners led the creation of an international rules-based order, rooted in our shared values, that has supported stability and prosperity around the world for more than seven decades.

Yet this free and open order is now under duress.

We all understand that, because peace is never fully assured, the United States and its partners must continue to protect our founding principles and our way of life. And we are committed to doing just that.

Today, in this era of great power competition, the Department of Defense has prioritized China then Russia, as our top strategic competitors. These revisionist powers are using predatory economics, political subversion, and military force in an attempt to shift the balance of power in their favor, and often at the expense of others.

China for example is exerting its malign influence through its “One-Belt, One-Road” Initiative. This campaign has left weaker nations with crushing debt, forcing them to take their economic relief at the expense of their sovereignty.

Additionally, Beijing’s aggression and disregard of its commitments in the South and East China Seas -- such as the sinking of a Vietnamese vessel and escorting of Chinese fishing fleets into the exclusive economic zones of Indonesia and the Philippines -- are further examples of the Communist Party’s attempts to reshape and undermine the international order that has benefitted nations, large and small.

At the same time, Russia is overtly redrawing international borders. Moscow’s invasion of Georgia in 2008, annexation of Crimea in 2014, and sustained aggression in Ukraine demonstrates its blatant disregard for international rules and norms.

Moreover, both nations are expanding and modernizing their armed forces, and extending their capabilities into the space and cyber domains, in order to exert greater pressure against other countries.

Meanwhile, for nearly two decades the United States concentrated on fighting violent extremist organizations in low intensity conflicts that left us less focused and prepared for a high-end fight against near peer adversaries. And in the last decade, the Department was crippled by the devastating effects of sequestration, continuing resolutions, and insufficient budgets, prior to 2017. For years, our military was in a period of strategic atrophy and burning down readiness, as our adversaries watched from the sidelines, searching for opportunities to erode our hard-earned gains.

Today, with a view of the world very different from our own, emboldened competitors are using their growing power to coercively alter the strategic environment to our detriment.

Given these challenges, in 2018, the Department of Defense developed the National Defense Strategy, the NDS, which states that we are now in this era of great power competition and defines the challenges we face. The NDS also directs us to adapt to this increasingly complex security environment now in order to deter conflict, and if necessary, fight and win, to secure our future.

I am pleased to report that a great deal of funding and effort has been put behind this strategy over the past three years to ensure the U.S. military is organized, trained, equipped, manned and ready to compete, deter, and fight, and win in this new age.

During my confirmation hearing last year, as Mike mentioned, I made clear that my highest priority would be the irreversible implementation of the NDS.

This strategy tells us that to be successful, we must follow three lines of effort: first, enhance our lethality and readiness across the force; second, strengthen our alliances and build partnerships; and third, reform the department to align our highest -- our resources with our highest priorities.

Soon after becoming the Secretary of Defense, I met with our senior DOD leaders – uniformed and civilian – and we developed a list of ten targeted goals to advance implementation of the NDS aligned under its three major thrusts.

Our first line of effort aims to maintain our warfighting advantages and continue outpacing the competition when it comes to lethality and readiness. To modernize our capabilities, we have successfully secured funding for game-changing technologies such as artificial intelligence, hypersonics, directed energy, and 5G networks. We have also made significant progress recapitalizing our strategic nuclear triad. Among our other efforts, we conducted a comprehensive review of the Future Naval Force to meet our requirements in the years ahead – something I will discuss in more detail in a few moments.

We are also modernizing how we maintain our readiness to fight. We have re-reorganized our ready forces into plan-based Immediate Response and Contingency Response Forces.

In addition, we have implemented enhanced readiness concepts such as dynamic force employment – demonstrated recently by our bomber task forces in the Indo-Pacific and the European theater – that also reassure our allies and help deter our competitors.

We are developing a modern Joint Warfighting concept, which will ultimately become doctrine, and ensure the whole of the joint force is far more effective than the sum of its parts.

Our second line of effort builds on our relationships with other Nations, an asymmetric strategic advantage that no rivals can match. To do so, we are implementing a coordinated plan, the first of its kind, to strengthen allies and build partners. In our priority theater, the Indo-Pacific, we have worked hard toward this end – as evidenced by my multiple trips throughout the region and numerous interactions with leaders from across the AOR.

This is part of our theater strategy based on three-pillars:

  • preparedness,
  • strengthening partnerships,
  • and promoting a more networked region.

Our third line of effort drives us to reform the department for greater performance and effectively manage our Fourth estate, which includes organizations such as the Defense Logistics Agency. In doing so, we are redirecting our time, money, and manpower to the highest priorities while maximizing the use of every taxpayer dollar. We have made great progress on this front with our Defense-Wide Review, where we identified $5.7 billion in defense reforms and efficiencies across the Fourth estate last year.

 The Chief Management Officer, who is now responsible for these agencies – a first ever DOD reform – is working hard to identify billions more this year. We have also directed our Military Services to conduct clean-sheet reviews to identify savings and efficiencies, as well as to develop their plans for reform to the NDS. Our Combatant Commands are going through a similar review to consolidate and reduce legacy requirements in order to optimize our operational footprint.

Underpinning all three of these lines, and principal to many of our efforts, is to focus the department on China.

To fulfill this objective, we stood up a new Defense Policy office on China, and established a China Strategy Management Group to better integrate our enterprise.

I also directed our National Defense University to dedicate half of its coursework to the PRC, and I tasked the Military Services to make the People’s Liberation Army the pacing threat in all of our schools, programs, and training.

These are just a few of our efforts to focus attention on our priority theater, the Indo-Pacific. Not only is this region important because it is a hub of global trade and commerce, it is also the epicenter of great power competition with China. And in the face of destabilizing activities from the PLA, particularly in the maritime domain, the United States must be ready to deter conflict, and if necessary, fight and win at sea.

So today, I want to talk to you about our efforts to modernize our military, specifically our great Navy.

And over the next few days here in California, I will get a chance to see first-hand, what we are doing to prepare our naval force for the high-end fight, as I visit the USS Carl Vinson, Naval Base Point Loma, and industry partners who are developing unmanned naval systems.

Over the past year, I’ve had the chance to visit U.S. Navy ships and units of all types, all across the globe; to spend time with our senior naval officers; and to meet with hundreds of Sailors where they live and where they work. And I can assure you that we command, without a doubt, the best and most capable Navy on this planet. 

But as the NDS states, our military does not have a preordained right to victory in combat. Beijing and Moscow have studied how we fight and are developing asymmetric capabilities designed to counter our strengths.  

The Chinese Communist Party, for whom the PLA serves, intends to complete the modernization of its armed forces by 2035, and field a world-class military by 2049.

In addition to developing traditional weapons systems, Beijing is also investing in long-range, autonomous, and unmanned submarines, which it believes can be a cost-effective counter to American naval power.

 I want to make clear that China cannot match the United States when it comes to naval power. Even if we stopped building new ships, it would take the PRC years to close the gap when it comes to our capability on the high seas.

Ship numbers are important, but they don’t tell the whole story.

They do not address the types of ships and the capabilities of the vessels being counted; the skill of the crews that operate them; the prowess of the officers that lead them; or the ways in which we fight and sustain them…just to name a few.

Nonetheless, we must stay ahead; we must retain our overmatch; and we will keep building modern ships to ensure we remain the world’s greatest Navy.

That said, to compete in a 21st century high-end fight, we will need a future fleet that optimizes the following operational attributes: first, distributed lethality and awareness; second, survivability in a high intensity conflict; third, adaptability for a complex world; fourth, ability to project power, control the seas and demonstrate presence; and fifth, capability to deliver precision effects at very long ranges.

This future naval force will be more balanced in its ability to deliver lethal effects from the air, from the sea, and from under the sea.

This fleet will be made up of more and smaller surface combatants; optionally-manned, unmanned, and autonomous surface and subsurface vehicles; unmanned carrier-based aircraft of all types; a larger and more capable submarine force; and a modern strategic deterrent.

And we must keep investing in our People, ensuring they are the best trained, educated, technologically skilled, and ready force in the world. 

At the same time, this force must be affordable in an era of tight funding; sustainable over the long term; and operationally ready and available at higher rates.

In addition, it must have a robust and healthy industrial base, with modern shipyards and highly skilled workers, which have the capacity to build and maintain the fleet we need.

That is why, earlier this year, I asked the Deputy Secretary of Defense to lead a Future Naval Forces Study, tasked with assessing a wider and more ambitious range of “future fleet” options.  

The Navy, Marine Corps, Joint Staff, the Office of the Secretary, as well as outside advisors conducted a comprehensive, cost and threat-informed review and analysis.

First, they examined the naval forces we currently have; second, they explored future force options needed to retain dominance in 2045 given China’s likely modernization plans; and, third, they war gamed these options, assessing the strengths and weaknesses of each combination of ships against different future mission sets.

This week I met with the Deputy Secretary and the Navy/Marine Corps/OSD/Joint Staff team to discuss their findings. The results are a game-changer that reflect a good deal of serious work and effort based on facts and data.

This study will serve as our guidepost as we decide on, program, and build our future fleet, and conduct follow-on assessments in select areas.

In short, it will be a balanced force of over 355 ships – both manned and unmanned – and will be built in a relevant timeframe and budget-informed manner.

And we will build this fleet in such a way that balances tomorrow’s challenges with today’s readiness needs, and does not create a hollow Navy in the process.

To achieve this outcome, we must increase funding for shipbuilding and the readiness that sustains a larger force. Doing this, and finding the money within the Navy budget and elsewhere to make it real, is something both the Navy leadership and I are committed to doing.

As an example of where we are headed, earlier this year, the Navy granted a $795 million contract to purchase the first ship of a new class of guided missile frigates – with an option to purchase nine more totaling nearly $5.6 billion.

This is the first new major shipbuilding program the Navy has sought in more than a decade. These combatants will support the National Defense Strategy across the full range of military operations, with increased lethality, survivability, capability, and capacity to conduct distributed warfare—a key requirement born -- borne out by the Future Naval Force study.

As I visit with industry partners over the next few days, I will learn more about the Navy’s latest transformational pursuits – unmanned surface vessels and unmanned undersea vehicles.

We are making solid progress on these fronts.

Earlier this month, for example, the Sea Hunter prototype completed operations with the USS Russell, demonstrating various aspects of manned and unmanned teaming.

 We are planning on-going training events to continue developing tactics, techniques, and procedures for these platforms. These efforts are the next step in realizing our future fleet, one in which unmanned systems perform a variety of warfighting functions, from delivering lethal fires and laying mines, to conducting resupply or surveilling the enemy. This will be a major shift in how we will conduct naval warfare in the years and decades to come.

Finally, this future Navy and Marine Corps will employ novel concepts such as “Distributed Maritime Operations” and “Littoral Operations In A Contested Environment,” which will modernize the way we fight as they enable our future Joint Warfighting doctrine.

Over the course of our history, the United States Navy evolved from the earliest wooden frigates of the Revolution to the low-profile ironclads of the Civil War; and from the enormous steel battleships of Teddy Roosevelt’s Great White Fleet to Admiral Rickover’s “nuclear navy” of the Cold War; all the way up to today’s powerful supercarriers.

Each one of these eras was marked by great technological change and new capability. Today, we are at another inflection point, one where I believe unmanned technologies, AI, and long-range precision weapons will play an increasingly leading role. The U.S. military, including the Navy, must lean into that future as the character of warfare changes.

Building this future force and maintaining our maritime superiority now and into the future will require a whole-of-nation approach across government, industry, and academia.

To our private sector partners, particularly in shipbuilding, we must continue to work together to promote a robust and healthy industrial base with modern shipyards, infrastructure, and highly skilled workers. We will need your help to match our level of ambition for new capabilities and more capacity in the coming years, with innovation that performs on cost and on schedule.

For Congress and our partners on Capitol Hill, we need your support to continue our momentum, namely through adequate, sustained, predictable, and timely budgets. To support critical next-generation capabilities, our future budgets must also be able to free up needed resources by divesting from legacy systems and lower priority activities. We also request the authority to put unused end of year Navy funding directly into the shipbuilding account, rather than see it expire.

To our partners in academia and at think tanks, such as RAND, we need your “outside the box” thinking; your research and your analysis to help us adapt to this increasingly complex and challenging environment; to help us refine our future fleet plans and warfighting concepts in follow on studies; and to do all of this faster, in order to outpace our competitors.

Finally, to our allies and partners around the world, know that we are committed to strengthening our relationships and preserving the international rules-based order that has benefitted us all for more than 75 years. We urge you to increase your defense spending to at least 2% of GDP, and to make the needed investments to improve your capabilities and capacity, just as we are doing with our armed forces, to achieve our shared goals – that is to protect our mutual interests, preserve our security, and defend our common values.

We all have a collective responsibility to prepare for the challenges of the future – while addressing the security issues of today. We cannot be complacent and must recognize the shifting landscape, otherwise we risk inviting greater aggression and further challenges to our values and security.

If we can do this, I am confident that we will be able to maintain the international rules and norms that have enabled our security and prosperity, for many, many more generations to come.

Thank you and I look forward to our discussion.